Claude stood in front of a winding road. It looked like one made by a rich landowner rather than the local government. It was paved with large stone slates packed with mud; municipal roads were usually a kind of treated, hardened gravel, sand-like business.
The yellowed path, despite its winds, was quite flat and neatly kept. Claude didn't expect it to last long, however. The region's weather was harsh on stone, and the rain like acid -- it ate through stone in no time. If the road was frequently travelled, the metal-shoe'd, wooden wheels would wear it through just as quickly.
The kingdom forbade travel on private roads, but the three southwestern prefectures didn't enforce that particular law. They generally kept vehicles off private roads and paths, but travellers by foot weren't bothered. The worst that would happen to Claude was a quick interrogation as to his identity and motives.
He followed the road up the hill and back down the other side, then up the next hill and down its other side. He started up the third hill, when he heard a panicked cry just around the next corner.
"It's startled! Quick, after it! Damnit! The Madam is still in the coach! How are you even driving?!"
Claude stared down the stretch of road to find a majestic black horse dashing straight at him. A small coach danced behind it. Beyond that, two people came bumbling like crazed idiots. One looked like a butler and the other like a coachman.
The road was only three metres wide, enough for a coach to travel comfortably, but not for anything else to move or pass by it. It was slow enough to react to the small changes in the straight bit of road, but there was no way it would make the turn.
The horse was just ten metres from him by the time what was happening registered.
"Bang!" he shouted instinctively and the horse's eyes hazed.
The majestic animal was no run-of-the-mill market horse, however. While it calmed and lost some awareness, it didn't trip. It's stride continued confidently, if only in its capacity to keep it upright. It slowed to a trot, then a walk, and came to a full stop right in front of the boy. Claude took its reigns, and waited for the two servants to catch up.
He was ecstatic that he'd successfully used Mental Shock in his first crisis situation, but his ears and eyes remained alert. He filled up the triangle with his mana just in case, ready to cast Mental Shock again at the rustle of a leaf.
The coach door swung open and an elegant lady, no older than her early thirties, peeked out. Her hair was in miserable disarray, and her dress was crumpled up like old paper.
"It's fine, Madam," Claude said with a slight, polite bow. The lady had a shapely figure -- tall with the right curves in the right places. What little of her skin showed was silky smooth.
She wiped her hair out of her face and examined Claude closely. Claude gave another, quick bow, but froze halfway up at her greeting.
"Thank you for saving my life, young magus."
Claude blanked half as much as the horse. How could he be discovered so quickly?! It was all over now! But he'd not done even a tenth of what he'd dreamt of!
"S-Sorry?" Claude managed with a sincere air of confusion and only half-hidden panic.
The woman smiled. Her lips parted and another stream of daggers shot at him.
"Oh, you didn't hear? Surely that can't be so, Sir Magus? I mean, you are a magus, aren't you? That was a spell you used to stop the horse, after all. Oh, pardon my lack of manners, I haven't even asked my saviour's name yet!"
It was just the three of them. He could do it. He had to do it. He'll kill them and make it look like an accident, it very nearly was one, anyway. It wouldn't be murder, he would just have undid his saving of them. He was so far away from anything and everyone else, no one would realise he, an innocent 16-year-old kid was the one that did it.
Claude's mind was spinning. He didn't even hear her speak. His mind was wholly occupied with how to make it all go away. He couldn't just run away, his fall into magistry would bring his family down as well. He didn't really care what happened to his father and older brother, but his mother and younger siblings... He couldn't bear the thought of being the cause of their suffering.
"It's fine. Fate brought us together, so I just did my part. My parents taught me one should always help wherever one can. I am a nobody. You should not aggrieve your ears with my name. I hardly did much, anyway."
"Hehe, you're an interesting one. You're barely more than a little child but you already sound mature. Let me hear your name. I want to know which family produced such a talent."
The woman's smile was warm, but it quickly vanished when she saw the cold in his glances to her and her two servants.
"You intend to kill us?" the woman asked, her eyes glaring.
"What?" Claude tried to play dumb despite knowing his murderous intent was all too obvious in his eyes.
"Hahaha. Don't be so tense, young man. Relax. You probably haven't killed anyone before, right? You've not learned to hide your intentions yet. Your eyes shout it out for the whole world to hear. Stop and think a bit, will you? Tell me, how do you think I knew you used a spell? Normal people can't sense mana at all, you know."
"Wha-what?!" Claude stared at her, his jaw buried in the floor.
"Come, let's go to my home, I'll show you what I mean," the woman answered, that same warm smile back on her face.
It was Claude's turn to be weary. Was she luring him to her lair to kill or imprison him? Did she want to make him a slave, or her test subject? His mind raced for several long moments, then slowly, and reluctantly, calmed down. She was right, ordinary people couldn't sense mana at all, how could she so easily figure out he'd cast a spell if she wasn't a magus herself?
Ugh, that didn't make him feel too much better, either. Then again, he could at least still kill her later if she turned out to be playing him. His curiosity quickly overshadowed his weariness. He was infatuated with magic from the moment he got his hands on something magical, and it had only gotten worse as he slowly began setting his feet on the path of magic. How could he turn down the chance to interact with another magus?
"Alright. I will go along," Claude said firmly after another round of consideration.
The coachman and butler arrived amidst a gust of puffs and wheezes.
"Ma... Madam, are you... alright?"
The butler gasped between wheezes. The coachman quietly took the reigns from Claude and checked on the horse.
"I'm fine, Rodan," the lady answered regally and pointed at Claude, "This young man calmed the horse. You'd have had to come looking for me at the bottom of the hill, otherwise."
The two quickly bowed to Claude with profuse thanks and insisted he accompany them to the lady's manor. The butler refused to let the lady ride in the coach, however, and had them wait by the roadside while the coachman took it back and switched out the horse.
"You're a weird young man, carrying a musket even though you're a magus. Don't you know muskets are reviled things to magi? They're the devil's tools. We magi were chased off Freia because of those vile things!"
Her butler inspected Claude with slightly weary eyes at his lady's words.
"I know of no such taboo," Claude replied, "I've not heard of it. As far as I'm concerned, muskets are just useful tools, just like magic."
She opened her mouth, then closed it, biting off her words.
"Then why are you on my lands with that thing?" she asked instead.
"I'm only passing by. I'm heading deep into the hills to hunt wild boar."
"That's all my land though. You really are a brave little boy. Are you sure you can take on a boar alone with just that musket of yours?"
The woman turned to her butler, who followed behind the two.
"Rodan, are there really wild boars in the hills?"
The butler nodded.
"The Sioris have seen wild boars in the hills before, yes. We don't know where they came from. They've ruined most of our cassava harvest this year. We were going to hire a few hunters to take care of them, but then you started visiting more frequently and we decided not to bring in outsiders."
"I see," the lady nodded slightly, "We won't need hunters any longer. This young lad here can take care of that for us. Can't you, young lad?"
"I can, Madam."
The coach came trotting around the corner again. The coachman had switched out not just the horse, but the coach as well. The previous one had a small, violet-black cabin, with a silver rose pewter-crest on the doors.
It took the three to a unique manor hidden in the woods. The first thing he saw when they burst out of the thick canopy into the clearing that housed the manor, was a magnificent fountain. A large tea garden stretched out from the fountain in eight quadrants, bisected along one axis by the road leading up to the manor itself. It was bisected along the perpendicular axis by a carefully tended cobblestone creek.
"Come in," the woman said as she stepped through the front doors.
A bright light suddenly illuminated the room. When he followed the shadows to the light's source, he was shocked to see it was the woman's hand. A small sphere of light hovered above her petite palm, and when she gave it a soft blow, it rose into the air like a dandelion on a breeze.